By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; 3:25 PM
If the Washington region appears aglow during this holiday season, it may be the glare of tail lights, as an estimated 2.5 million people disappear over the horizon.
That's the number of people who plan to get out of town, most telling AAA that they'll travel by car to visit family or friends.
"This means four out of 10 Washingtonians will be traveling during the 12-day holiday period. That's utterly amazing," said AAA spokesman John B. Townsend, who described it as "an exodus of biblical proportions."
That's the largest number of people traveling 50 miles or more from this area for any holiday this year, but it's still 4.2 percent below last year's total, which set a 21st-century record.
If fewer people travel by road this season, it may be that high unemployment and higher gas prices -- they're up by 94 cents per gallon over this time last year -- convinced some folks that home and hearth were the more prudent option.
The 117,000 local residents who plan to fly are more than 5 percent less than took to the air a year ago, and far fewer than the 206,682 who say they'll take the bus or train.
The overall dip in holiday travel in the Washington region contrasts with a 3.8 percent increase nationally.
AAA said 87.7 million people plan to travel 50 miles or more away from home. The number going by automobile is expected to be 77.7 million this year, compared with 74.4 million last year. The number taking planes is expected to be 4.2 million compared with 4.1 million in 2008.
Townsend pointed out that while the Washington area has the highest median household income and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the United States, its residents are "not immune from the vagaries of the economy."
"Many area residents are still dealing with a variety of financial woes during the protracted economic downturn, including joblessness and the foreclosure crisis, which hit the hardest in pockets of the outer suburbs -- Prince William County, in particular -- and the inner suburbs, with Prince George's County at the epicenter," Townsend said. "Although our region is one of the most stable in the nation, Washingtonians are picking and choosing which holiday they will celebrate miles from home. If they traveled at Thanksgiving, they may stay home for Christmas."